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Tales from the Local Jail: Forgetting the CO??

July 10th, 2015

Recently I was in a local business and in browsing around my eye was drawn to a display of frames for certificates, photographs, diplomas, retirement awards, etc…we all have seen them. They were made of finished wood, and were very stylish. One would love to have one on display in his or her den, living room, etc. Just to get a plaque with your photo, an imprinted badge or department patch and some words of praise would always be remembered. It is nice that a manufacturer would produce these so that families and departments can present awards to deserving people.

As I drew closer and admired the handiwork of the frames and plaques, I noticed that there were plaques for police officer, fireman and emergency medical technician (EMT). Then I realized-there was not one for correctional officers. Not one frame, large or small.

I am a retired deputy sheriff. I worked inside a large county jail. I served for over 27 years with a group of highly trained professional men and women. There are thousands of correctional officers in our country that have had long careers in correctional institutions. Some of these facilities where they served were small jails. Some were maximum security state and federal prisons. Some served in special housing units. Some were on emergency response teams or transported inmates.

And-let’s not forget the thousands of correctional officers, deputy sheriffs and juvenile detention staff members who are still serving in prisons, local jails, juvenile centers, halfway houses, lockups and regional jails. Their titles vary from deputy, counselor, or just correctional officer (CO).

All correctional staff enters a place every day where their ‘clientele’, so to speak, do not want to be there, do not want to be told what to do and many will undermine and circumvent staff. There are gang members, violent inmates, drug users, alcohol abusers and mentally ill offenders that have to be supervised. COs have to work double shifts, long hours, overtime, overnight shifts, weekends and holidays. They are subject to being called into work in emergencies. They try to get off duty on time-and many do not, phoning home and telling their loved ones that they will be late-an emergency happened or ‘something came up’. Some never come home at all, and we remember them and their families daily in our thoughts and prayers. The job is dangerous. Many are maimed, have to retire early and are never the same. Some recover from inmate assaults and return to the facility-like they have taken an oath and have been trained to do.

They have to get clean the cells where inmates have cut their wrists, hanged themselves or have assaulted other inmates. They open cell doors and get hit with the odor of smeared feces, the liquid waste of urine, thrown fecal matter, stuffed up toilets or the sting of ‘spit’. Inmates play “head games” with them, and try to manipulate them into bending the rules or to bring in contraband. The stress of the job can affect their physical health, mental health, quality of life and personal life. Families-spouses and children- know that the CO family member has had too many ‘bad days’ when he or she drinks too much, yells at them or doesn’t want to take part in family activities any more. COs suffer from headaches, ulcers, high blood pressure and fatigue-and that is only a partial list. They look at their pay and then at the bills-and wonder at times if a career in corrections is worth it. Most think that it is; and feel a sense of pride, of professionalism, of duty to the public, and know that correctional work is a ‘noble profession’. So-they go back in the next day.

The public, through the media, hears about things that go wrong in a correctional facility, but seldom when anything good happens-such as a CO saving a suicidal inmate or the implementation of a new program for inmates. Like any professions, corrections has its ‘bad apples’, the officers and staff that have made stupid decisions. COs who become corrupted and engage in contraband smuggling, aiding escapes and having sex with inmates must face the consequences of their actions, from termination to criminal charges. But they in no way reflect the majority of the workforce of highly trained ethical and competent correctional officers.

Corrections has been called “Law Enforcement’s Toughest Beat”. Some of us may say that’s true. I think that any profession where one has to wear a badge and enforce the law-from street cops to probation/parole officers is a tough beat. Correctional officers are law enforcement officers-just like cops. We handle different types of offenders, are subjected to physical danger, and enforce both the law and the rules of the institution. Both professions are dangerous.

Does the public know this, or just refer to us as ‘guards’ that sit around all day and watch the inmates? Does the public realize that COs are in the thick of inmates and when trouble starts, can sometimes only back up to a wall, calling for backup? COs see the personality flaws, mental problems, scams and schemes, rights and wrongs, strengths, emotions, anger and frustrations of the incarcerated, right up close and personal. These are encountered by the CO dealing with the inmates face to face, one on one.

So, after giving this profession a lot of thought, and describing how tough it is…….the next time that you are in a store and those frames and plaques catch your eye……ask…where are the ones for the CO?

Reference:

“Law Enforcement’s Toughest Beat”. (December, 2014). Correctional Oasis, Desert Waters Correctional Outreach, Volume 11, Issue 12, p. 3.

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